The difficulty with most horror sequels is how do you scare the audience a second time when they know what’s coming? Often, this question is skirted by less discerning producers and filmmakers who are frequently dealing with material that’s hardly frightening to begin with. Should they really care if necking teenagers are terrified of Jason Voorhees and his desperately compensating machete? Here’s the gore, here’s the nudity, thanks for the ten bucks. To Insidious: Chapter 2’s credit, it completely ignores that lazily successful business model. Unlike most horror follow-ups, nearly everyone came back for the Insidious sequel. Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell are back; stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne returned; even Lin Shaye’s ghost whisperer has been exhumed, and that’s impressive considering she died in the original’s closing minutes. Yet despite the same creative team as the first film, Insidious: Chapter 2 is boldly dissimilar to that flick in one too many ways: Namely quality. Despite having “Chapter 2” in the title, this sequel kickoffs as more of a prequel. Set in the 1980s, we are reintroduced to Lorraine Lambert and Elise Rainer. Played in the previous film, and for much of this installment, by Barbara Hershey and Lin Shaye, respectively, they have taken on the guise of Jocelin Donahue and Lindsay Seim for this sequence. Quickly, audiences are brought up to speed on the haunting of Lorraine’s son, Josh Lambert. Previously seen as an emotionally repressed father (Patrick Wilson), he is now a scared little boy tormented by visions of on an old crone in black coming to him in his dreams. But the real horror is that every time his mother takes his picture, she too can see the woman in black…and in each photograph she is getting closer. With hypnotism, Elise represses Josh’s ability to astral project and the spectral parasite dissipates…until we jump cut to the present where adult Josh has finally projected into “the Further” (New Age Purgatory) to save his son’s soul from a demon. Unfortunately, that same old lady beat Josh back to his body, just in time to strangle an aged Elise to death in the original film’s final moments and… It turns out not a whole lot of blowback for such a decidedly definitive conclusion. As possessed Josh is easily able to talk his way out of killing Elise to his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) and son Dalton (Ty Simpkins), in spite of the fact that Renai has photographic proof that Josh is possessed, he soon even convinces the police someone else did the strangulations. Indeed, we get a thorough background on whom that someone is. With the help of Ghost Elise, the first film’s comic relief of Specs and Tucker (series writer Whannell and Angus Sampson) slowly, and with much slapstick, discover that the woman in black is a Norman Bates wannabe. Named Parker Crane (Tom Fitzpatrick), he/she was the cross-dressing servant of a mommy dearest with a taste for serial killing. This demystification of what was the first film’s creepiest image is more than a bit disappointing, but so too is the new approach to the horror in the Lambert house. After Renai’s son and Lorraine’s grandson spent three months in a coma directly prior to Insidious: Chapter 2, they gallop swiftly back into forced domestic tranquility, if only for the horror machinations to smoothly churn once more. There is a wonderful understatement in Byrne’s performance that shows her acknowledging something is wrong, but she suppresses it for husband in the immediacy, her family’s stability in the long-term and the plot’s forced expediency for the running time. The old haunted house gags return briefly, but only in service of padding the scares until the film’s ultimate conflict, one between crazed father and family. Wilson gets to have the most fun as possessed Josh, because while all the others must rediscover how much they fear ghosts, he is already deep into that territory and enjoying it. While the first relied on heavily surrealist imagery from the haunting Further for its scares, complete with a demon and Norman Rockwell paintings from Hell, the sequel feels more comfortably rooted in The Shining territory: Ghost dad has an axe (or in this case a bat) and needs to be put down. The unique visions of Undead limbo are replaced by a comfortable threat, which is the last thing desired in a horror film. However, there is some benefit to this approach. It is quickly discovered that one of the many ghosts still haunting the poor Lamberts is in fact not a ghost at all, but father Josh trapped in the Further. If Wan and Whannell already displayed a penchant for playing with nonlinear timelines in the Saw films they had a hand in, they really get to run wild in the astral Further where Josh not only travels space, but he also travails his own timeline by returning to the aforementioned prequel sequence, and even some of the more confounding bits of the first film. It is a nifty trick that is aided a great deal by the return of Shaye as a spirited Elise—she alternates between helping Josh and guiding Specs, Tucker, and an old colleague named Carl (Steven Coulter) through the history of Parker Crane. It also admirably avoids any of the relatively iconic money-shots of the Demon from Insidious, as if Wan and Whannell are declaring they will not become lazily predictable as the Sawfilms did after their absence. There is actually quite a bit of originality present in the execution, as well as the now franchise-stapled slapstick camp associated with the first film’s tongue-in-cheek tone. Specs and Tucker especially get quite a few more pratfalls and sight gags while Renai seems almost aware of the absurdity in which she is participating. Ultimately, this levitating spectacle is actually strung up by strong performances from all the principals, continuing to prove that horror can benefit from good acting.
Yet since Insidious’s 2011 debut, the genre has changed again. There have been the passable knockoffs like last year’s Sinister with Ethan Hawke, but honestly it all pales in the wake of director Wan’s OTHER 2013 release, The Conjuring. That picture, which also stars Wilson, lacks the cheeky underhand of the Insidious films, but what it misses in self-awareness it makes up for in genuine scares. The Conjuring does not reinvent the wheel, but it does create one of the more horrific experiences to be had in a theater this year, which is incredibly impressive considering it is dealing with the tropes of ghosts, possession and witchcraft that are so wholly ubiquitous in our culture that even Ryan Murphy is pilfering through them on television. Insidiousperuses a more uncharted territory in 21st century religion with only some passing influences from Kubrick and Hitchcock. However, when the end result feels so contorted and browbeaten into its horror formula, there is little left to scare, but plenty to induce laughter. It’s a shame that only half of it is intentional. Den of Geek Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars